Why not work your way up?

| Thursday, Sept. 13, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

Maybe it is insulting even to suggest.

But is it time to say, “Enough sitting around, quit waiting for the politicians (even in this election year) and take that entry- level job?”

As a food server, to put it bluntly. At or near minimum wage. Or behind a retail counter. Child care, building maintenance or driving an 18-wheeler could also be a start.

No need to say it, you didn't go to college for this.

You came out with a diploma, a debt, and reasonable expectations: to start earning the lifetime $190,000-plus to which completion of four years of higher education is supposed to reward somebody, compared to the kid for whom high school was enough. And here you're being told to respond to an “apply within” sign at a fast-fooder.

No politician is advising that, for sure. He'd be scared at an opponent (or worse, the news media) telling the world Rep. Dimbrain's big solution to unemployment: “Go flip burgers.”

A parent might urge it. But what do parents know about the peer pressures to find a meaningful “career path”?

And yet the U.S. economy has some 3 million unfilled jobs right now (almost any time, in fact). Some are highly technical, some dirty and sweaty, and some geographically remote (can you imagine oil-rich North Dakota with the lowest jobless rate in the country?) but many are only a short bus ride away. At the entry level, however.

Organized labor hasn't done enough to insist on the dignity of such work. “Deadend jobs,” they're too often called.

But many a career lesson, and life lesson, can be learned on the bottom rung, even by scholars shocked to find the marketplace not clamoring right now for A's in history or English lit. But a knack for selling women's or children's clothing, yes. Or to fix cars or clear sink drains. Or to smile and say, “Good morning” and “Thanks” at a restaurant counter. Or, most important of all, to show up for work on time the next day and the days thereafter. Such habits lead to promotions and ways out of dead ends.

How many corporate board chairmen love to reminisce about carrying newspapers as a boy, mowing lawns, or checking tires at a gas station? And what lady executive in fashion, publishing or high-tech didn't get her first job experience baby-sitting?

Statistics are scarce, but observation suggests that some older people behind food counters nowadays, managers and shift supervisors, were in other careers before. They got laid off and switched to something that could bring in a buck. Good for them. That's how job markets are supposed to work. The economy may not be crying for sociologists but it needs long-distance truckers (100,000 of them as it happens).

A recent study out of Rutgers University indicates almost half of recent college grads aren't finding work in this economy. A million or more young people's diplomas haven't paid off (yet). Many seem to have quit looking. Since January 2009, labor force participation among college graduates has dropped from 77.6 percent to 75.5 percent.

So does this mean we need more government stimulus to create the “good jobs” all politicians try to put in your head when they say “jobs”?

Or is the country simply turning out (and paying and borrowing for) more diplomas than we need?

Or is that age-old, low-paid entry level the surest job creator of them all?

Email jmarkowitz@tribweb.com.

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